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[Image: Focus Features]

[Image: Focus Features]

Jeff Nichols isn’t even 40, but in the past decade, he’s announced himself as one of our country’s most vital moviemakers. His grasp of quotidian Midwestern detail is unparalleled; he captures the red-state landscapes of Wal-mart Superstores and Ford pickups like no one else in contemporary Hollywood. Early works like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter invested those spaces with a low-pitched unease, while this year’s Midnight Special ratcheted the hysteria into something otherworldly.

In one sense, the announcement that 2016 would see Nichols’s entry into prestige territory was worrisome. The landmark Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case is important and potentially gooey stuff, ostensibly lacking the urgency and sense of place that have marked this director’s best work—material better suited to whoever makes movies like The Help.

It’s a small miracle, then, that Loving retains so much of Nichols’s artistic agency. There’s the menace—especially on lonely, nighttime roadways—and rural compassion. The mid-century setting even allows the filmmaker a chance to approach his small-towns from a new aesthetic perspective.

As ever, Nichols’s gift for casting lends a verisimilitude and internal life to characters rarely afforded such peculiar depth. Joel Edgerton, in particular, communicates volumes with a simple shrug of the shoulder, while Nick Kroll does a dead-ringer impression of a gawky, Kennedy-era liberal.

If anything, Nichols approach is a touch too delicate, as if half-dazed by the story’s enormous responsibility. But this is a director that trusts his audience to understand the invocation of marriage equality and its basic decency without the usual message-movie framework. At its heart, Loving is as much a movie about compassion as it is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary—the kind of thing Nichols does best.

Loving. Directed and written by Jeff Nichols. Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, and Nick Kroll. Opens in Kansas City November 23, 2016.

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